Tag Archives: Laura Sheahen

A decade in Darfur: Call me Actcaritas

"Actcaritas" (otherwise known as Abakar and "Condoleezza Rice". Credit: Laura Sheahen/Act Caritas

“Actcaritas” (otherwise known as Abakar) and his relative “Condoleezza Rice”. Credit: Laura Sheahen/Act Caritas

Seldom has a joint programme between aid agencies made such a personal impression on an employee, but the partnership of ACT Alliance and Caritas—Protestants and Catholics helping Darfur–struck a cord with an aid worker in the region. Here, he describes why he likes his nickname.

My real first name is Abakar. But everyone calls me “Actcaritas.” I like it. When I go to the camps for displaced people, they all call me “Actcaritas.” My real name is lost.

I am logistics fleet assistant. I buy diesel in the market and take it to the camps. We use it to run the water systems, so the people have water. We used to need 30 drums of fuel for all the camps. Now that the programme has built solar-powered water stations, we use less fuel.

ACT/Caritas has supported NCA [Norwegian Church Aid] for a long time in Darfur. There were always very strong here. And they gave us a holiday bonus. ACT/Caritas is a quality donor.

My shirt has the ACT and Caritas logos. Any day I wear this shirt, I am happy. But this shirt is wearing out. It’s been five years.

This girl is my relative. Her mother calls her only by her nickname: Condoleezza Rice.

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Filed under Africa, Conflicts and Disasters, Disaster Preparedness, Emergencies, Emergencies in Darfur and South Sudan, Peacebuilding, Sudan, Volunteers

A decade in Darfur: challenges and progress

Caritas' local partner trains residents of a camp for displaced peoplein Darfur to repair water systems. Credit: Laura Sheahen for ACT/Caritas

Caritas’ local partner trains residents of a camp for displaced people
in Darfur to repair water systems. Credit: Laura Sheahen for ACT/Caritas

By Laura Sheahen

“When we first came here, we were getting water from the valley, seven kilometers away.” Muhammad is a long-time resident of a camp in Darfur for people who fled violence. He remembers what it was like nearly a decade ago, when thousands of desperate people first arrived. “Farmers were settled closer to the valley, so we couldn’t live where the water was. But when we went to get water, they helped us.”

Ten years later, hundreds of thousands of people remain in Darfur’s camps. They’d like to go back to their villages, but until they can, Caritas-funded programmes are making sure they can live in dignity. 2013 marks 10 years of keeping vulnerable Darfuris alive and making their lives better.

Water is one example of the progress that’s been made. Muhammad’s camp is on dry, dusty land—some thorn trees, scrub brush, and baobabs grow there, but not much else. “For a while we carried water from the unprotected wells dug in the valley, but then we got hand pumps,” says Muhammad. Drilling inside the camp was difficult because the water
level is deep, but a local partner managed it. “Water is right where we live now. It’s helped us a lot,” said Muhammad.

As the years passed, Caritas support helped the partner drill more wells and make water systems in many camps easier and more efficient.

“Next we got motorized water pumps, but had to get fuel to run them,” said Muhammad. By 2012, the camps could make use of an inexhaustible resource in hot Darfur: “Now all the water systems are solar-powered.” Scattered around Muhammad’s camp are tanks connected to wide panels of solar cells. All camp residents—there are over
35,000—use the water. Neighbours from the host community also benefit: they come by with metal barrels on donkey carts to fill up.

The water’s first use is for drinking. The climate can be so dry that people get dehydrated if they’re not careful, says a doctor at a clinic supported by Caritas. But the water also keeps animals alive, so that women can take donkeys on journeys to gather grass from greener areas. People can wash their hands and bathe more often,
preventing the spread of disease. A spillway from tapstands directs water to lemon and mango trees, creating a small gardenlike oasis between dusty paths in the camp.

The water means the ubiquitous dust can be put to use in other ways, too. Bakhita, an energetic woman wearing a blue dress and turban, stands ankle-deep in a mud puddle she’s churned up using water from a plastic jerry can. Beside the puddle, large bricks she’s shaped from the mud are drying. “I’ll use these to make a house,” she says. “If the water pumps weren’t here, we couldn’t make these bricks. I’d just be thinking about how to get water to drink.”

Darfuris who have spent years in the camps continue to struggle. It’s not the place they wanted to be home. But for now, it is. And for ten years, bit by bit, Caritas programmes have been working to make it better.

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Filed under Africa, Aid Success Story, Conflicts and Disasters, Disaster Preparedness, Emergencies, Emergencies in Darfur and South Sudan, Peacebuilding, Sudan

Selling lies: human trafficking in Romania

In subway stations in the capital of Romania, a poster warns people about human trafficking. Photo: Laura Sheahen/Caritas

By Laura Sheahen

On a nondescript street in the capital of Romania, my colleague and I duck into a small, unmarked doorway and make our way up four narrow flights of stairs. In the stairwell, there are no posters or signs, none of the charity-related paraphernalia I usually notice when visiting organisations that fight human trafficking. We only see those when we reach the small attic office.

The organisation we’re visiting, ADPARE, has had to move offices a few times. The place is hidden because traffickers—criminals who buy and sell human beings—got too close.

We’re here to meet Adrian*, a 16-year-old boy who spent his childhood as a slave. Bought by a trafficker when he was a baby, Adrian grew up in Spain, forced to beg and steal.

He’d make hundreds of euros a day, and all of it went to his “false family,” as he calls it. At times he tried to hide money. “But they knew, so they beat me.”

In Spain, Adrian lived in a garage with the family. Everyone else had a bed, but he slept on the floor. “Because I tried to run away so much, they chained me at night,” he says.

One day when he was 11, Adrian was on a trip with the family back to Romania. When the family was sleeping, Adrian managed to escape. He rode a train to the capital city, Bucharest. “On the train I was thinking, ‘I’ll be free.’”

He was soon reunited with his birth mother, who didn’t know he had been trafficked and was overjoyed to have him back in her life. Police built a case, and some of his traffickers are in jail now.

Adrian’s is a success story for ADPARE, a group that works with Caritas and other charities to help trafficking survivors begin again. After a lot of counselling with ADPARE and a lot of hard work at school, Adrian is adjusting well to his new life and is excelling in his classes.

Other cases are much tougher. A girl who was trafficked to Switzerland—a neighbour had promised her work in a hotel—is back in Romania now. Women who are sold into sex work often suffer even more lasting trauma than people sold into forced labour or beggary. The girl drank a caustic liquid, trying to commit suicide. Her esophagus is destroyed. “We’re feeding her through a tube. Yesterday was my turn,” says Gina*, president of ADPARE.

Like everything about trafficking, sex trafficking is hidden. Human traffickers make it their business to be hard to spot, and make it hard to identify who is their prey. “Many clients of prostitutes think the woman is there because she wants to be,” says Gabriela Chiroiu of Caritas Bucharest. “But when you see her with bruises, burned with a cigarette, or crying, you should know something is wrong.”

Traffickers wear many masks, sometimes pretending to be caring, involved friends or lovers. “They know when to strike, when people are most vulnerable,” says Gina.

Gina recalls a 16-year-old girl who left her home because of family tensions and went to live on her own in a different city, working as a babysitter. “A man started grooming her,” says Gina. “He’d call and asked her if she’d eaten. He bought her medicine when she was sick.”

“Then one day he said, ‘I have friends—a couple with a baby—in Norway. They need a nanny.’” Once the girl was out of the country, she was sold into prostitution.

Often, the victims blame themselves. “There are too many traffickers to be angry with,” Gina says. “They’re angry with themselves for trusting someone.  One man who’d been trafficked to a factory in London said to me, ‘I was so stupid to believe everything.’”

Sometimes the person who sells you for money is a close relative. “One of the strangest things I hear,” says Gina, “is a woman saying, ‘The father of my children sold me.’”

Even when trafficked people escape, they’re not always safe. Gina’s on the phone with another man who was trafficked to England. He can’t to go back to his original area of Romania because traffickers are still on the loose there, and might threaten him so he’ll retract his police testimony.

ADPARE trains police, court workers, and other groups, teaching them how to talk to victims. “I like working with the police, because our trainings really change their attitudes,” says Gina. “The general mentality is that all the victims are prostitutes. When they looked at the cases, they were amazed.”

The traffickers themselves operate like shapeshifters, changing locations and contact information constantly. If they recruited someone using a mobile phone, they eventually “throw away the SIM card after a few weeks so they can’t be tracked,” says Gabriela.

Because selling people is so profitable, traffickers don’t let go of their victims easily. Sixteen-year-old Adrian is acing his science classes, getting to know his stepsister, and building a close relationship with his mother. “If not for ADPARE, I wouldn’t have so much support. I wouldn’t have recovered so fast,” he says.

Psychologically, he may be out of the woods. But there are some things he can’t shake off. People involved in his trafficking came to Adrian’s village last week, looking for him; he called Gina for advice.

“Trafficking has so many faces, you can’t imagine,” says Gabriela. “Behind everything is the trafficker, brutal, getting richer and richer.”

*Some names have been changed or shortened

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Filed under Advocacy, Europe, Labor exploitation, Migration, Romania, Trafficking, Women

Escaping bullets and bombs in Syria

As Syria refugees pour into Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, Caritas is giving them food, medical care, and emergency aid. Ilham, a mother of five, described a harrowing day in her home city to Caritas Communications Officer Laura Sheahen.

Ilham was shot in the leg after a sniper killed her neighbour as he returned bringing milk for her children. She later fled Syria with her children. Photo: Laura Sheahen/Caritas

I have nothing to do with the military, I am a civilian. We’re from Bab Amr, in Homs.

One day I wanted to go get milk. My neighbour Adnan said, “Don’t go, I’ll bring you milk. I’m afraid you’ll be killed.” The snipers shoot from a long distance. We don’t see the shooter, but he sees us.

It was about 2 pm and Adnan was bringing the milk to me, two containers. A shooter was up in a building in a small window.

He was shot. The bullet went through his arm to his heart.

I went out to try to save Adnan. The person who shot him also shot me, to prevent me from reaching him. The bullet went through my left thigh. I was lucky it didn’t hit the bone.

Some people came to help. I said, “Go to him first, he’s bleeding so much.” But the medical services are bad, no one could save him.

I hopped to other neighbours and they tied a bandage around my leg.

I kept hoping things would improve. But my house was bombarded three times. I slept in my clothes and headscarf because I was afraid we’d have to run out at night, or someone would come in.

We left for Damascus, but then bombardments began there. I thought, “It’s becoming too bad.” I was afraid my children would be killed. I realized we had to leave.

Now we live here in Jordan.

Ilham speaks with Caritas Jordan staff in the doctor’s office of a Caritas center. Photo: Laura Sheahen/Caritas

I have epilepsy, and so do three of my children. My daughter has seizures twice a day. She foams at the mouth and her whole body becomes stiff.

Here in Jordan, my neighbours told me about Caritas. I am going to talk to the Caritas doctor about epilepsy medicine. If this doctor wasn’t here, I don’t know what I’d do.

I didn’t want to leave my country, but I was afraid for my kids.

Adnan had five children. We were neighbours, and like family. May he rest in peace.

Caritas is helping thousands of refugees like Ilham. Read more about the crisis and consider donating.

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Filed under Conflicts and Disasters, Emergencies, Emergencies in Syria, Jordan, Middle East & North Africa, Peacebuilding, Refugees, Syria

Fleeing Syria: refugee parents tell their stories

Available in French

Eleven-year-old Salem, a refugee boy, drew this picture showing what happened in Syria before his family fled for Lebanon. Photo: Laura Sheahen/Caritas

By Laura Sheahen, Caritas Communications Officer

“We’d move from neighbour to neighbour to escape the bombing,” says Ahmed, a father of six from the Syrian city of Homs. As civil war in his country escalated, he watched buildings bombarded and people injured or killed.

“There came a moment when I looked at my children and thought, ‘nothing matters but them.’ I knew we had to leave.”

If they only had themselves to worry about, thousands of Syrian parents might take their chances and stay in their country even as bombs drop and snipers fire. “If it were not for my children, I would never have left Syria. I should be there,” says Ahmed. Instead, he took his family to Jordan.

Ilham, an epileptic mother of six, was shot in the leg by a sniper. But for several months after, she remained in Syria. “I didn’t want to leave my country,” she says. Finally, though, it wasn’t about her: “I was afraid my kids would be killed.” She too fled to Jordan. Continue reading

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Filed under Conflicts and Disasters, Emergencies, Emergencies in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Middle East & North Africa, Peacebuilding, Refugees, Syria

Mobile clinic visits Syrian refugee children

Available in French

Examining Syrian refugee children in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. By Laura Sheahen/Caritas

Tens of thousands of people have fled Syria to escape bombardments and shooting. Now living in cramped, unsanitary conditions in neighbouring countries, some refugees are falling ill. Doctor Simon Kolanjian is a pediatrician who travels in a Caritas Lebanon mobile clinic to treat refugee children. He spoke with Caritas Communications Officer Laura Sheahen about what he’s seen since the clinic on wheels started in May 2012.

How are Syrian refugee children doing?

The children are malnourished. They come to us and they’re weak and thin.

A lot of kids have diarrhea. The water isn’t clean. I tell them to boil it. We need to tell them how to use water. The infections go up in summer. We can’t keep giving them antibiotics if the water’s bad. We must address the root cause.

There are also upper respiratory infections, lice, fungal infections.

How many kids do you usually see in a typical day?

I saw 22 children in one place yesterday, then ten in another. Continue reading

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Filed under Conflicts and Disasters, Emergencies, Emergencies in Syria, Lebanon, Middle East & North Africa, Peacebuilding, Refugees, Syria

Syrian child refugees face poverty in Lebanon

Available in French

By Laura Sheahen, Caritas Communications Officer

A black pupil within azure and indigo swirls, the ‘ayn’ is supposed to ward off envy and the evil eye. These round, blue glass objects are ubiquitous in the Middle East.

It’s hard to imagine who would envy the three bedraggled children I’m talking to in eastern Lebanon. Or how much worse their luck could get.

Every day, the kids—a boy aged 10, his seven-year-old sister, and a girl aged 9—take a paid car alone from the refugee area where they’re living to the city of Zahle. All afternoon, they roam the streets of Zahle, trying to sell as many ayn as they can.

The children are Syrian refugees, part of an exodus that has poured into Lebanon and other countries since spring 2011, but especially in July 2012. Here in Lebanon, some refugee families are living with host families or are crowding into apartments, with five or more people in each room. Other families are living in tent camps by the side of the road in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The valley is a farming area and many tents are just seed sacks that are sewn together. Continue reading

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Filed under Conflicts and Disasters, Emergencies, Emergencies in Syria, Español, Français, Jerusalem, Middle East & North Africa, Peacebuilding